Federal prosecutors allege that a top immunologist at Ohio State University illegally concealed Chinese funding for his research and attempted to flee the country before his arrest in Alaska in May.
In a criminal complaint unsealed on Thursday, the Justice Department accuses Song Guo Zheng, the Ronald L. Whisler MD Chair in Rheumatology and Immunology at Ohio State’s medical school, of fraudulently obtaining federal grant funds from the National Institutes of Health and making false statements to investigators.
Zheng, prosecutors say, obtained nearly $5 million in federal research grants without disclosing ties to Chinese entities and additional grant funds provided by them. The complaint and other filings in a federal court in Ohio indicate that Zheng has long been affiliated with Chinese research efforts called “Talent Plans” that U.S. officials have alleged are integral to Chinese government efforts to boost scientific and technological advancement in the country by having experts train and conduct research in the United States and elsewhere.
According to prosecutors, Ohio State placed Zheng on administrative leave while it conducted its own investigation into those alleged omissions. Zheng, they say, quickly began making plans to return to his native China.
Zheng’s attorneys have not directly responded to the allegations in court. But the transcript of his arraignment indicates that Zheng, a U.S. permanent resident, has denied the charges against him. “I understand” the charges, Zheng told the court through a translator, “but I disagree with all of them.”
Ohio State confirmed that Zheng was an employee and said he’d been placed on unpaid leave, but declined to comment further.
“Ohio State has been and continues to assist federal law enforcement authorities in every way possible,” a university spokesperson told The Daily Beast in an email. “We cannot comment further at this time due to the ongoing law enforcement investigation.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of Ohio declined to comment when The Daily Beast first inquired about the Alaska arrest in late May. However, they provided a statement on Thursday after the criminal complaint was unsealed.
“We allege that Zheng was preparing to flee the country after he learned that his employer had begun an administrative process into whether or not he was complying with rules governing taxpayer-funded grants,” said David M. DeVillers, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. “This is our office’s third recent case involving the illegal transfer of intellectual property and research to China. This underscores our commitment to work with the FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services, and our research institutions to protect our country’s position as a global leader in research and innovation, and to punish those who try to exploit and undermine that position.”
A lawyer for Zheng did not respond to repeated requests for information. Efforts to reach Zheng personally were not successful.
Zheng’s case is just the latest federal prosecution of a U.S. academic whom the DOJ alleges had undisclosed ties to Chinese interests or funders. The department has also recently gone after researchers at Harvard University and the University of Kansas. In public remarks this week, the FBI Director Chris Wray stated, “We’ve now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours.”
Prosecutors say Zheng’s case revolves around a failure to disclose Chinese funding in grant applications during his time at OSU and at two previous jobs at the University of Southern California and Pennsylvania State University.
Zheng “had received numerous admonishments from both NIH and OSU regarding conflicts of interest, and I believe he failed to disclose his overseas activities because he knew they placed his NIH funding at risk,” an FBI agent investigating the case told the court.
According to prosecutors, Zheng gave conflicting answers when asked if he was involved with China’s Talent Plan programs. Zheng told a law enforcement interviewed that he “had been recruited into the PRC talent plans but he did not accept the position because he did not want to spend nine months of the year in the PRC.” But later in the interview, he appeared to acknowledge his participation, saying “he did not know he had to report his affiliation with talent plans.”
According to the criminal complaint, OSU notified Zheng of its administrative investigation in mid-May. Six days later, prosecutors say, he left Columbus, “contacted a friend and was afforded a seat on a charter flight back to the PRC and packed up numerous electronic devices and a significant amount of personal items.” Prosecutors also presented evidence that Zheng and his wife planned to sell their house in Ohio.
Prosecutors characterized that as an attempt by Zheng to flee the country. He was stopped at the Ted Stevens airport in Alaska. Zheng allegedly used his Chinese passport to board the flight and when the plane was deboarded, he quickly gave his carry-on luggage to a passenger he did not know.
“When confronted,” prosecutors said, “Zheng initially indicated he was moving permanently, then changed his story to indicate he was visiting a sick relative and later added he was looking for a job in the PRC.”